The War Against Public Educaton

These are dark days for public education in America. In many corners of the United States public education in our colleges and universities is under attack. Know-nothing state legislators, most of them of the Republican persuasion, seem bent on dismantling our public education system.

Our system of public education has been the envy of the world. In recent times, though, many legislators, governors, and corporate administrators have demonstrated little or no respect for those of us who labor in the classrooms of our public schools. These folks don't seem to care if our young adults learn how to read with comprehension, think critically or write clear and cogent prose.

There has been much news about the systematic decimation of the highly regarded system of public higher education in North Carolina. Much has been discussed about Governor Scott Walker's campaign to weaken the University of Wisconsin system of public higher education. Here in Pennsylvania the excellent State System of Public Higher Education (PASSHE) is at a pivotal crossroads. During his one and only term Governor Tom "Tea Party Light" Corbett drastically cut PASSHE's budget. From the vantage of the college classroom, it looked like he wanted to transform PASSHE universities into what would amount to a series of trade schools where students go to college to get a job rather than to learn how to become engaged citizens of the world. Corbett's resounding defeat in 2014 did not halt the anti-public education crusade in Pennsylvania. The Republican controlled Pennsylvania legislature and the PASSHE Board of Governors continue their efforts to change, which here means to undermine, the Keystone State's system of public higher education. To make matters worse, the tepid advocacy of PASSHE Chancellor, Frank Brogan, a Corbett appointee who was Lieutenant Governor of Florida during the era of Jeb Bush, has seriously harmed efforts to improve public higher education in Pennsylvania.

People who don't like public education usually don't like strong faculty unions like the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (APSCUF), an organization that insists that high academic standards be maintained in Pennsylvania's public universities. For years PASSHE administrators have tried to break the union. In recent years the union has had to vote to authorize strikes to compel PASSHE administrators to endorse fair contracts. In the current contract stalemate, which has lasted more than 460 days, APSCUF has been forced to set a strike date for October 19th. The union has many objections to PASSHE proposals, including PASSHE's insistence on demanding steep health care give backs while maintaining current salaries, which amounts to a substantial cut in income.

Consider some other insulting tidbits from the PASSHE menu. They want to hire more temporary faculty, referred to as "teaching machines" by PASSHE negotiators, have them teach more classes and pay them less. They suggest that first year graduate students teach undergraduate classes. These cynical moves demonstrate a profound contempt for hardworking public university students and for dedicated professors, especially those who are temporary professors, men and women who are committed scholars with doctoral degrees working in insecure positions for disturbingly low pay.

The higher education impasse in Pennsylvania, of course, is not an isolated phenomenon. It reflects a prodigious lack of respect for the people--professors, both permanent and temporary, whom we trust to teach our young adults about the whys and wherefores of the world. Indeed, public officials like Governor Pat McCrory of North Carolina and Governor Rick Scott have indirectly and directly demonstrated contempt for scholarly pursuits. Why not cut "useless" programs like art, history, philosophy, gender studies or anthropology? Why waste money on faculty development and research? From this know-nothing perspective, fundamental research is a waste of time and taxpayer money. After all, anybody can teach a class on history or philosophy. These all too common anti-intellectual attitudes are deeply insulting to those of us who teach and to our public university students.

From my anthropological vantage, however, there also seems to be a broad class bias at work in the contemporary war against public higher education. For generations public higher education has been an arena in which students who come from homes of modest means can afford to get a first class education. Many of the students at my public university are the first people in their family to attend college. When legislators cut state contributions to public higher education, however, tuition goes way up, meaning that the debt burden for many motivated students becomes too steep and college becomes unaffordable. Even if students work two or three jobs to make ends meet, as do many of the students in my classes, many of the best and brightest have been forced to drop out. In the end these sad scenarios seriously reinforce class division and expand income inequality.

What a loss for the university! What a loss for our society!

What kind of society fails to demonstrate even a modicum of respect for those of us who teach young adults how to read, think, and write?

What kind of society fails to invest in the education of its youth?

Shame on the public official or corporate administrator who would gut public higher education in America. As Joseph Welch long ago said to the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy:

"Have you no sense of decency, sir?"